Solicitors and the Code of Conduct

The legal profession encompasses many different roles and the term ‘lawyer’ can be used to mean a plethora of job titles. In simple terms, there are two key types of lawyer: barristers and solicitors. This blog post is solely focused on solicitors, and the varying roles commonly found within a typical solicitors’ office. Legal professionals, such as solicitors are overseen by governing bodies and must adhere to various rules in order for them to continue to practise. This post will focus on the professional conduct rules for solicitors, and the different job roles you might find in a solicitors’ firm.

Code of Conduct

Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SRA is responsible for regulating everything from training to be a solicitor, to dealing with how solicitors firms are run. Within the SRA Handbook, 10 principles are set down which are mandatory and apply to everyone who is regulated by the SRA, as well the Solicitors Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct section includes Outcomes which must be achieved, usually by acting in light of the Indicative Behaviours.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority website can be found here:

The Solicitors Regulation Authority Handbook can be found here:

Chapter 1 of the Code of Conduct, within the SRA Handbook, is concerned with Client Care. This chapter is about providing a proper standard of service, taking into account the individual differences of each and every client. This includes ensuring that the client is given all the information they require to make informed decisions about the services they require, how they will be delivered and the costs involved. This chapter also deals with complaints handling.

The Outcomes which must be achieved in this chapter are lengthy. Examples of the Outcomes include:

  • Outcome 1.1 – You treat your clients fairly.
  • Outcome 1.4 – You have the resources, skills and procedures to carry out your clients’ instructions.
  • Outcome 1.9 – Clients are informed in writing at the outset of their matter of their right to complain and how complaints can be made.
  • Outcome 1.12 – Clients are in a position to make informed decisions about the services they need, or how their matter will be handled and the options available to them.

This list is non-exhaustive and includes 16 individual Outcomes, all of which must be satisfied.

The way in which a solicitor acts can suggest that they satisfy the Outcomes. These are known as Indicative Behaviours which accompany each chapter of the Code of Conduct. For example, one of the Indicative Behaviours for chapter one is:

  • Indicative Behaviour 1.3 – Ensuring that the client is told, in writing, the name and status of the person(s) dealing with the matter and the name and status of the person responsible for its overall supervision.

Many solicitors firms include these details in their client care letters. These are usually the first correspondence that you would receive from a solicitor, and tend to include information on client care.

Different roles with a law firm 

The aim of this section is to briefly highlight the various roles which are commonly found within a solicitors’ firm.

Partner: Law firms are generally partnerships and are therefore owned and managed by a partner. Partnership tends to be the ultimate ambition of an individual entering the legal profession and can be considered as the highest step on the career ladder. Partners are the owners of a firm, and therefore take a proportion of profits generated by the firm.

Associate/Senior Associate Solicitor: An associate is a fully qualified solicitor who is an employee of the firm. This usually means that this individual is working under the supervision of a Partner, or a more senior associate. These solicitors tend to work on a fixed salary. This role can also be considered to be a ‘fee-earner’, in that the work that they do generates the income of the firm. Levels of seniority are usually dependant on how much experience or expertise in an area that individual has. As a newly qualified associate in a firm, the next logical step would be increased seniority to become a ‘senior associate’ (if such a role exists within that particular firm), followed by partnership.

Trainee Solicitor: In order to become an associate in a law firm, an individual must secure and complete a training contract, or a period of recognised training within a law firm. An individual in the process of completing one of these will be known as a trainee solicitor. A period of recognised training tends to last 2 years and involves the individual ‘rotating’ around the various areas of law which the firm offers.

Paralegal/Legal assistant: This role is essentially that of an individual who carries out legal work that does not strictly have the status of a solicitor as they have not completed a training contract.

Chartered Legal Executive: Chartered Legal Executives are individuals which usually have the same expertise as a solicitor, but have simply chosen a different route to qualification.

Legal Secretary: Legal secretaries carry out administrative work for solicitors. Legal secretaries aren’t required to have any official legal qualification.

This post was written by Robert Bayles. Robert is a final year MLaw student currently working in the business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. On graduation Robert aspires to secure a training contract within an in-house legal department of a company. Outside of law, Robert enjoys everything related to football specifically, as well as most other sports.

 

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How important is a law firm’s reputation?

The Telegraph recently reported on the release of a YouTube video by a City firm trainee commenting on very personal religious beliefs.  Since then many firms have been asking what they would do if they had to deal with the same situation. There have been questions about whether there should be disciplinary action, whether policies across the City need to be tightened up, or if indeed anything should be done. All these questions are being asked due to one thing – the firms’ reputation. Considering the place of modern law firms in business, it seems as though concern about reputation is a fair one, but to what extent should it limit the actions of trainees and staff?

Law Firms as Businesses

Although in the past, law firms were seen as just a location to obtain legal advice and nothing more. Nowadays this has changed. Due to increased competition and greater client expectations, firms are now much more akin to businesses. As any business person knows, the reputation of a business is invaluable, otherwise the goodwill in a business wouldn’t receive its own monetary value on a sale or merger. To protect this value, businesses will have strict internal controls and disciplinary proceedings in place, which mean that the employee faces ramifications for harming reputation or client relationships. These can range from an internal “slap on the wrist” to an action for dismissal, depending on the severity of employee’s action.

As businesses, law firms have already put internal controls in place to discipline employees in order to protect reputation. This case though seems slightly different. The firm in question, as many others do, encourage an environment where staff members are free to express their opinion and the firm actively works towards diversity in their workforce. Free opinion and diversity are two invaluable qualities in any firm, therefore restricting opinion through disciplinary procedures seems counter-intuitive to the firm’s ethos and fundamental beliefs. If disciplinary action is taking place or if firms tightened up procedures it would seem contrary to their beliefs.

On the other hand – does the trainee in question not have a level of responsibility and duty towards the firm, to perhaps be more conservative about how or where he expresses his views? A City salary is certainly something that law students aspire to and trainees work hard for, but surely with such a high level of remuneration the trainees should be duty bound to the firm to think in their best interests when speaking publically? It seems unjustified that trainees should control their everyday actions in fear of what may, or may not be published.

Law firms as professionals

There is another element to this matter that most businesses don’t have to consider. Law firms are professional organisations. Most of the revenue making activities of the firm are done by staff that are either professionally accredited or training to be professionally accredited. Although professionalism is something that is taken into account by all employers, in the case of solicitors there is a particular emphasis on it. This is more so considering a recent survey that found that only 47% of legal service users trusted their legal advisor.[1] As the profession desperately tries to turn around this lack of trust, is it better to adhere to strict internal controls for the sake of the profession, or should the public be able to expect the quality of our work and our opinions are two different matters? The SRA code enforces standards on all solicitors that make sure they maintain public trust, but this should not put a gagging order on solicitors and their opinion. Solicitors’ business is dependent on opinion in part, as legal arguments are usually constructed on two conflicting opinions on a point of law. From this view point it seems even more bizarre that there should be a limit on opinion imposed by the regulator, particularly as to do so may damage client work and therefore damage reputation further. Yet still, this lack of trust the public has is concerning, and one that is perhaps best addressed by further regulation that seeks to limit firms being embarrassed by actions of their employees.

Conclusion

As much as it would be an ideal world if everyone could separate out the quality of someone’s work from their own personal opinions about a person, it seems as if this might be a far off fantasy. This is not to say that internal discipline should come under draconian control. What I would advocate for is the maintenance of personal accountability and control. As a profession, we claim to be intelligent and savvy individuals, so surely ones that can exercise personal accountability and control. One trainee, who is perceived as failing to do this, does not mean that a whole new system of internal regulation needs to be created – perhaps just a quick reminder that YouTube isn’t the best place for your opinions. From the latest reports, this seems to be the approach the firm in question has taken, but it will be interesting to see if future events illicit such a cool headed response.

[1] Legal Services Consumer Panel “Tracker Survey 2014” (Legal Services Consumer Panel, 2014) http://www.legalservicesconsumerpanel.org.uk/ourwork/CWI/documents/2014%20Tracker%20Briefing%202_Trust_Sat.pdf

This blog post was written by Vicky Pridmore. Vicky is currently an M Law Student at Northumbria University and working in a business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. Due to this experience, and previous work experience, she has developed an interest in the commercial world. On graduation she hopes to secure a training contract that will allow her to further her interest in both national and international commercial matters.